Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest is a droll, hilarious dramedy about the challenges of female power and competition, with three amazing performances from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz.
When it comes to acid-tongued, deadpan humor, few do it better than Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. While works like the transcendent relationship dramedy The Lobster and his Kubrickian thriller Killing of a Sacred Deer drip with an alien sensibility, there’s always a distinct distance to them that can prevent the uninitiated from getting on their level. In a strange way, The Favourite is his most accessible film to date – a high-court historical pantomime on par with Whit Stillman’s delightful Love and Friendship, with a heaping helping of anger slathered on it like mud marring a delicate ball gown.
Co-written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite thrusts us into the early 18th century, where the frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules at the best of her high court favo(u)rite, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, Disobedience), the Duchess of Marlborough. Best with gout, Anne must while away her days in a wheelchair, repeating daily applications of chilled slices of beef to alleviate the pain on her leg and generally relying on her advisors to run the country for her. Whether navigating an escalating (and increasingly expensive) war with France or simply seeing to Anne’s emotional – and sexual – needs, Sarah seemingly rules England through her proximity to the flighty, infirm Queen. All that starts to change, however, with the arrival of Sarah’s younger, lower-class cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a charming and ambitious young woman who quickly finds herself competing with Sarah for the Queen’s favor.
Make no mistake: The Favourite is not your average costume drama. While it’s got the same cheeky subversiveness that accompanied The Lobster’s examination of the structure of relationships, Lanthimos lets loose a bit more here, freeing his actors from the surrealistic deadpan that made that film so unique. His characters scream, whine, smirk and prod, as willing to push people into a ditch to prove a point as they are to rub Queen Anne’s feet just to whisper in her ear. Of course, none of this means Lanthimos loses his edge; no small amount of blood and obscenities flies as Sarah and Abigail’s battle of wits escalates.
This time, Lanthimos’ eye is turned to the cutthroat nature of court culture in 18th century England, a world of irrepressible largesse and privilege shielded from the troubles of the common people, which he, the writers and cast mine for some lovely class criticism. The foppish men who vie for the courts’ attention (and its accompanying power) are real standouts, from Nicholas Hoult’s makeup-caked fancy boy Robert Harley (“A man must look pretty”) to Joe Alwyn’s dashing Samuel Masham, who offers up one of the most hilarious court dance sequences in movie history. The Favourite’s setting is used wonderfully to what amounts to a high-falutin’ political workplace comedy, a Veep with petticoats populated by deeply silly people whose capacity for treachery is eclipsed only by their obliviousness and transparency.
Of course, this historical context is just elegantly-arranged window dressing for an uproarious comedy about female competition, and the pressures that come from women in power, rendered by three of the greatest performances of the year. While Stone and Weisz give stellar turns worthy of their stardom – fierce queens sneering at each other when the other’s back is turned, full of piss and vinegar – it’d be great if The Favourite finally showed broader moviegoing audiences what Olivia Colman is capable of. She’s a mainstay on British TV and in films, but she hasn’t had such a boisterous showcase for her particular set of skills. As Queen Anne, she does scowling, spoiled petulance like no other, not so secretly eating up both Sarah and Abigail’s respective attempts to curry her favor. And yet, there’s an incredible pathos to her Anne, a woman isolated by power and chronic illness, desperate for companionship of any kind.
On top of all that, the movie just looks gorgeous. Robbie Ryan’s candle-lit cinematography evokes the grim feudal naturalism of Barry Lyndon but shrouds its high-ceilinged halls with a claustrophobic darkness. It’s a miracle this film looks as good as it does on a $15 million budget. And by God, the outfits – Sandy Powell’s incredible costume design is a cavalcade of over-the-top dresses, gowns and powdered wigs, visual reminders of the misplaced wealth of The Favourite’s roster of upper-crust fops and ladies. Sarah’s dashing shooting outfit might well be one of the most iconic lewks of the year behind Paddington’s red hat or the citizens of Wakanda.
Where Killing of a Sacred Deer cribs earnestly from Kubrick thrillers like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, The Favourite is absolutely Yorgos Lanthimos’ Barry Lyndon – a matter-of-fact satire of the silliness of high court culture, fueled by some of the most beautiful cinematography and slyly blood-sucking performances of 2018. This tale of Queen Anne and her sycophants is just as tragic as it is hilarious: Sarah and Abigail, after all, are motivated by their love for the Queen and England as much as their own ambition. Unfortunately, in the times in which they live, these strong-willed women are given little choice but to battle each other for power, tearing everyone down in the process. Still, as long as the journey is this darkly funny, it’s hard to complain.
The Favourite is currently holding royal court in theaters.